The Rotoworld Football crew is currently putting the finishing touches on our 2014 Fantasy Draft Guide. I went through our composite rankings on Saturday and discussed a number of them on Twitter. We have five writers doing rankings: Mike Clay, Adam Levitan, Pat Daugherty, Nick Mensio, and me. Our projections are similar for the most part -- particularly toward the top of each position -- but I thought it would be interesting to explore specific players on whom there was significant deviation.
I'm touching on quarterbacks and running backs here, and will examine wide receivers and tight ends in a future column.
We're calling these players Tough to Rank.
Daugherty is highest on Luck, projecting him as the QB4 behind Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees. Daugherty has Luck ahead of Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton. Mensio and I are lowest on Luck, ranking him ninth among quarterbacks.
Although Luck finished 2013 as the QB7, he averaged nearly six fewer fantasy points per game than Brees, and over nine fewer than Manning. Luck was a viable starter for the most part, but was not a week-to-week fantasy difference maker.
Reasons for Optimism: The Colts have personnel to play wide-open spread offense with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, LaVon Brazill, Da'Rick Rogers, and Donte Moncrief at wideout, and Coby Fleener and a healthy Dwayne Allen at tight end. They also brought in ex-Panthers OC and Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski as a special offensive assistant. A Norv Turner disciple, Chudzinski is a pass-game proponent with vertical leanings. Cam Newton -- a similar player to Luck, albeit with inferior passing ability -- ranked fourth and fourth in fantasy QB scoring during his first two NFL seasons with Chud as Carolina's offensive coordinator. Chudzinski also coaxed a top-five fantasy QB campaign out of Derek Anderson in 2007.
Reasons for Skepticism: Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton and coach Chuck Pagano are devoted power-run game believers, going so far as to regularly game plan to feature the run last season despite it being Indianapolis' obvious team weakness. Essentially, the 2013 Colts were committed to jamming a square peg into a round hole. Indianapolis finished a middling 15th in pass attempts, a number that likely would've been even lower had frequent early-game deficits not forced Luck into weekly comeback mode.
I'm highest on Cutler, ranking him as the QB6 behind Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Stafford, and Tony Romo. Daugherty is lowest on Cutler, projecting him as the QB16. (That's a mid to high fantasy backup.) Levitan and Mensio both have Cutler 11th among quarterbacks. Clay has him 13th.
Cutler started 11-of-16 games in 2013, missing time with ankle and groin injuries. He left two games early. Cutler finished as the No. 24 fantasy quarterback, and 21st in points per game.
Reasons for Optimism: If you combine Cutler and Josh McCown's 2013 stats from Marc Trestman's first season as Bears coach, they work out to the fantasy QB5. McCown is out of the picture, while Cutler is entering his second year under Quarterback Whisperer Trestman. There were strong indications Cutler was making strides before last year's injuries. He first went down in Week 7, and his 16-game pace over the first month and a half was a 32:16 TD-to-INT ratio with 4,347 yards, good for top-seven quarterback stats. Cutler is surrounded by touchdown scorers in Brandon Marshall (6'5/229), Alshon Jeffery (6'3/216), Martellus Bennett (6'6/259), and Marquess Wilson (6'3/194). Matt Forte is an awfully good receiver, too.
Reasons for Skepticism: Cutler disappointed down the stretch last season. Durability isn't a new issue for him, either, as Cutler hasn't played a full 16-game schedule since 2009. Perhaps Cutler is a chronic underachiever. I quizzed Daugherty on his low Cutler ranking, and he pointed to the likelihood of Cutler missing time.
Foster had the highest deviation among projected RB1/2s in our staff rankings. Mensio is highest on Foster, placing him sixth among fantasy backs. Daugherty has Foster the lowest at RB14. Levitan and I have Foster tenth. He's Clay's No. 8 running back.
Foster lasted only seven games in 2013, battling a hamstring injury and eventually undergoing surgery on his back. It's worth noting Foster lasted only four carries before getting hurt in Week 7, but his points-per-game average ranked 14th among fantasy runners.
Reasons for Optimism: If you give Foster a pass for the game he left early, his per-game fantasy scoring average was the RB10. Through six weeks, Foster was averaging 4.54 yards per carry -- his best mark since 2010 -- and was on pace for 1,904 all-purpose yards, 59 receptions, and eight TDs. As Houston has no current quarterback solution, coach Bill O'Brien plans to lean on his 2014 run game, which a talented defense should allow him to do. The Texans will run the football with volume out of two-wideout, two-tight end sets, and also drafted a lane-paving fullback in Auburn's Jay Prosch. It's conceivable Foster's 2013 time off has allowed his body to rejuvenate, as he led the NFL in touches 2010-2012 and was showing obvious symptoms of breakdown.
Reasons for Skepticism: Foster will be 28 when the season starts. Statistically speaking, it's the age at which running backs begin to descend. Foster is healthy now, but he's coming off back surgery, and his durability has become an increasing concern as his career has progressed. Gone is Gary Kubiak's Shanahanian zone run game. It's possible that we've seen the best of Foster. The Texans may be bad again in 2014.
I am highest on Spiller, ranking him as the RB12. Clay is lowest on Spiller, placing him 20th among fantasy backs. Levitan has Spiller 13th, Daugherty has Spiller 14th, and Mensio has him 15th.
Spiller finished as the No. 7 fantasy back in 2012, as Chan Gailey effectively schemed him into space in a five-wide Pistol Spread offense. The Bills became a run-foundation team under Doug Marrone in 2013. Spiller suffered a high ankle sprain and plummeted to No. 27 among running backs. He was 36th in points per game -- just barely an RB3.
Reasons for Optimism: Spiller averaged 4.62 yards per carry in 2013, despite playing on one leg. He's 27 years old, historically the peak age for running backs. He's also in a contract year. The Bills are the run-heaviest team in football and will continue to run with volume as Marrone and OC Nathaniel Hackett work to mask E.J. Manuel's passing weaknesses. Marrone and Hackett now have a year under their belt with Spiller, and will understand better how to utilize him as an in-space playmaker after attempting to grind him between the tackles early last season. Fred Jackson, who was a drain on Spiller's 2013 value, will be 33 1/2 years old by Week 1.
Reasons for Skepticism: Spiller has only missed three games in his four-year career, but some view him as injury prone. He is 5-foot-11 and 196 pounds. Buffalo signed Anthony Dixon (6'1/233) before trading for Bryce Brown (6'0/223), and Jackson (6'1/216) returns. It seems the Bills have a bigger-build "type" they seek at running back, and Spiller may not be a great fit. In terms of both touch distribution and injury management, Marrone and Hackett seemed to have a poor grasp of how to utilize Spiller last season, particularly early on. Spiller is unlikely to handle goal-line work, meaning he'll have to score his TDs from further than five and often ten yards out.
Mensio is the highest on Tate, ranking him as the RB19. Levitan has him the second highest at RB20. Clay has Tate 23rd among fantasy backs, and Daugherty 27th. I'm the lowest on Tate, ranking him 32nd at the position. (I'm also the highest among us on Browns third-round pick Terrance West, at RB38.)
Tate spent his first four NFL seasons in Houston, rushing 421 times for 1,992 yards (4.73 YPC) and 10 touchdowns, adding 58 receptions. He looked poised for feature back duties in Cleveland when the Browns signed him to a two-year, $6.2 million deal on March 15.
Reasons for Optimism: Tate is a good back, with plus burst and physicality as a ball carrier and functional passing-game chops. He landed in a good situation. The Browns have little at wide receiver and a very talented defense that should keep them competitive in games. They will use Johnny Manziel similarly to how new OC Kyle Shanahan managed Robert Griffin III during his 2012 rookie year. (The '12 Redskins ranked third in rushing attempts and 30th in pass attempts.) Tate has a lot of opportunity in a run-based offense. Tate is also familiar with Shanahan's run-game system, as Kyle worked on Gary Kubiak's staff in Houston. Tate is a safe bet to open the season as Cleveland's starter.
Reasons for Skepticism: The Browns traded up to draft Terrance West in the third round. West's game is similar to Alfred Morris', whom Shanahan most recently coached in Washington. The Browns additionally signed former five-star Georgia recruit Isaiah Crowell after the draft. Tate may end up as a committee back. Tate has a lengthy injury history, staying moderately healthy in just one of his four NFL seasons, and never handling a full workload. The Browns have nothing invested in Tate beyond the 2014 campaign. All of his guaranteed money runs out in 2015. So if West and/or Crowell outplays him, the Browns will have no incentive to stick with Tate.